Vagrant Queen: A Fresh Take on the Hero’s Journey

We talked to the showrunner star of the latest Syfy series, Vagrant Queen.

Vagrant Queen on Syfy
Photo: Syfy

Vagrant Queen is what you get when you take a little of Thor: Ragnarok and a pinch of Guardians of the Galaxy, and replace the chiseled, cis-het male hero with a fit, but realistic-looking Black heroine. It’s a kick-ass space adventure with charismatic characters and funky locations, replete with the humor and heart that make those films great.

Based on the comic of the same name, Vagrant Queen follows Elida, a child queen turned orphan who scavenges the galaxy, attempting to stay hidden from the Republic government who violently overthrew her family and wants to finish the job. When she runs into her old friend Isaac, he shares news about her past that launches them into a dangerous journey into the belly of the beast.

“It’s a personal journey culled against an epic backdrop,” says creator and showrunner Jem Garrard, when we spoke on the phone about the show. “I really love the idea of this space opera that really focused in on a very kind of personal and intimate journey and that you don’t really get to see much in this genre.” 

Science fiction tends to concern itself with big concepts and larger-than-life conflicts, often pitting one person against an entire system. And while Vagrant Queen does have some of these elements, it is, at its core, a show about “a young woman who’s trying to find her space in this world after being told who she is and who she should be,” says Garrard.

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Vagrant Queen’s lead characters are engaging, and the cast imbue them with an affability and energy that makes them easy to invest in emotionally. The cast came together after a broad search, and Elida, in particular, took some time to find.

Garrard knew Adriyan Rae was right for the role because, “she has this perfect balance between that sort of intensity and drama, and could marry that so well with comedy.” Rae was drawn to the role because of how “fleshed out and well-written” Elida is. “I really resonated with her quite easily. It was one of those roles that I empathized with and I was like, ‘Whoa, I actually love this character and I would love to play her.’”

Elida is a capable fighter, who can hold her own against opponents much larger and stronger than she is. Rae, who does her own stunts, trained daily, learning how to properly kick and throw a punch. Though production on the first season has wrapped, Rae continues to work out five days a week, as well as train in martial arts. She says, “I’m not going to be caught slipping this time, so I’ll really be on it for season two, with these kicks and everything.” As the old adage goes, if you stay ready, you ain’t gotta get ready.

Tim Rozon, who plays Canadian scallywag Isaac, is a Syfy alum who also plays fan-favorite Doc Holiday in Wynonna Earp. His audition for Isaac apparently left Garrard in stitches. “I think it was one of the only ones, I was back watching the tapes just laughing out loud.” The other main characters, Amae and Lazaro, were cast locally, in South Africa, where the show was filmed. Alex McGregor, who plays whip-smart mechanic Amae, “sort of just stepped into the room and just became Amae,” says Garrard, while Paul du Toit, who plays Commander Lazaro, “is just electrifying—he just seems to be that guy.”

Sci-fi is also awash with stories of lone heroes, who adopt a ragtag band of misfits, and go on journeys of self-discovery, subsequently saving a planet or dismantling a corrupt government. Those heroes are overwhelmingly male and white, like Peter Quill or Malcom Reynolds. Both are examples of mediocre white men who lead teams that include at least one badass, super-capable woman—Gamora and Zöe, respectively— who, for all intents and purposes, would make the better leader. Women rarely get to lead in sci-fi, and women of color even less. 

That is seeming to begin to change. Watchmen stars Regina King as lead Angela, a.k.a. Sister Night. Not only does Watchmen have a Black, female lead, but the story itself required that the actress be Black. Similarly, in the Vagrant Queen comic, Elida is a brown-skinned Black woman. Producers couldn’t simply “colorblind” cast for the role, they had to specifically search for a Black actress.

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“It’s a tough role because a lot of people just wanted to play her angry,” says Garrard, a white showrunner. “And when you try to write a character who’s sort of independent and tough, a lot of times that can kind of just read as anger, and there’s so much more to a leader.” I don’t know if Garrard knows how important this insight is. Black women are often portrayed as “strong” or “angry” and not allowed to be seen as vulnerable. It means a lot that care was taken not to affix those labels to the character.

It was also important that the show cast appropriately. In both X-Men live action trilogies, Ororo Munroe a.k.a. Storm is played by a biracial, light-skinned actress, while Storm in the comic books (and animated series) is dark-skinned. Comic book Elida is similarly colored, and Rae is lighter, which she had some concerns about.

“If you check out the comic and then go to my Instagram, you’ll see that my complexion is a lot lighter than Elida in the comic,” says Rae. “I was really surprised at first. I was like, ‘Aw, man. I love this role, but I’m not dark enough.’ I was really sad about that because there’s a thing with women of color. We’re in this great movement towards having more of that in TV and in a space where more people can see women of color in leading roles and things like that.”

This is an ongoing conversation within the Black community—especially among Black women, who are most affected by colorism—and there is a lot of nuance that we didn’t have time to address in our conversation. Rae, it should be noted, is not an extreme departure from her comic book counterpart in the same way Halle Berry or whatsherface is for Storm. Adriyan Rae looks the part.

Syfy, for its part, has been moving toward broader representation for at least the last five years. Kellita Smith co-stars in Z-Nation as Roberta Warren. Killjoys was the first in a long line of female-led series on the network to star a woman of color, featuring Hannah John-Kamen as Dutch (and Aneela). Syfy has a history of strong women leads, and Adriyan Rae is the latest in what will hopefully be a long, colorful line. “It feels like I’m carrying it, but I don’t realize how heavy it is yet,” she says.

Progress can be a slow process, but Syfy doesn’t seem to be slowing down. With Vagrant Queen, the network isn’t just putting WOC in front of the camera, but investing in women behind the scenes as well. Every episode was written and directed by women, headed up by Garrard, who said of the choice: “When I’m put in this position of power and I’m able to make those decisions, it’s very important to me to give opportunities to talented directors, talented women that weren’t otherwise being given those opportunities.” Garrard isn’t just busting down doors, she’s holding them open for other women to walk through.

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“I loved [working with women directors]. I don’t have anything against male directors, but it’s a different feeling,” says Rae of the production experience. “Working with all female directors, it’s empowering to know that you’re part of a movement. You’re a part of something that’s impactful and something that’s not the norm in Hollywood and that we’re moving it towards becomes the norm. I am very grateful to be part of that. It felt super comfortable. I felt so supported. Every director that came in there, I adore them to this day and we had a lot of fun while getting things done.”

Syfy consistently puts out enjoyable shows, but the network has yet to break out of the niche box they’ve been put into by many viewers. The aforementioned Killjoys is one of maybe five recent series on the network that reached its natural end and wasn’t prematurely canceled. Despite Syfy offering a home for shows that transcend their basic genre labels, there seems to be a disconnect between the network and the wider audience. People don’t know about these shows when they’re airing, and they don’t get the same cultural attention that other genre shows do. Vagrant Queen could perhaps change that.

So, what makes Vagrant Queen different from other things on TV? “Question for you,” asks Rae when the question is posed to her. “How many black females do you see doing comic book action stuff on TV as a lead role?” Not many. 

“I don’t find many things that push not just being woke, but it pushes the agenda of how strong, beautiful and impactful women are,” Rae continues.“I think that’s what makes it so different on top of the fact that it’s still sci-fi and it’s sci-fi with a Black lead, which is not very common.” 

Indeed, there are so few Black women leads in science fiction television, I can name them all off the top of my head. (Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael in Star Trek: Discovery, Danai Gurira as Michonne in The Walking Dead.) Seeing a Black woman carry a sci-fi series is still rare, and that may just set this show apart. 

Beyond that, Vagrant Queen is a flashy, exhilarating adventure, with a fresh take on the hero’s journey—or, as the showrunner describes it: “a very fun, bright, irreverent and violent space opera that has a very kind of personal journey.” Having seen the first two episodes, I find that to be an apt description. Some sci-fi can be dark and grim, both aesthetically and in tone. Often color and light, or lack thereof, are visual indicators that the subject matter is heavy or serious. Vagrant Queen does not take that approach. It is visually and tonally vibrant, which makes it a bright spot in these dark times—no hyperbole.

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“It’s a story that tells how women are strong no matter what type of woman you may be and no matter what shape, size, color,” says Rae. “No matter if you’re an empath, or if you’re a badass, or if you’re someone who is nurturing and loving, or someone who’s more submissive, it shows how powerful each and every one of those women are and can be, and how impactful that can be towards the world or the galaxy.”

The timing for Vagrant Queen may be fortuitous. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people are spending a lot of time inside, and turning to film and TV to occupy their time. A quick perusal through my Twitter timeline tells me people are looking for new things to watch, and they’re looking for things that take them out of their own heads, and out of their current reality. People want adventure and escapism, they want to have fun! Thankfully, Jem Garrard and her team made fun a mandate, and Vagrant Queen is primed to deliver the humor and enjoyment people are craving right now.

Vagrant Queen premieres tonight at 10pm ET on Syfy.